Evolution 2019 was, as usual, the biggest tournament of the year so far, and once again I made the trip up to Sin City and the Mandalay Bay resort/casino in order to participate. Ever since I was first aware of the greater fighting game community, I always recognized Evo as it. The I-Ching. The sum of everything that came before it. The Mecca for fighting game players. I used to say that if there was one tournament you needed to attend if you wanted to understand the fighting game community, it was Evo. As one of both the biggest and longest running events in the community, its prestige is absolute; placing at Evo is going to get you a Wikipedia entry and a medal that gives anyone who has it an almost unchallenged authority when it comes to fighting game prowess. Aside from just the tournament’s major community standing, many fighting game developers have chosen to make Evo the place to debut their new products or additions to fighting games already at the event. Much like how San Diego Comic-Con has become the go-to event to see new trailers for films and video games, Evo is where you can get a glimpse of what the next year or so will look like on the fighting game front. I don’t know of any other tournaments that have a curtained off section just for media coverage, which should speak to how big this event has become.
Too big, possibly, for its own britches.
When anyone talks about eSports entering into the community, most people’s first example is Evo. You’ll often hear it commonly said that Evo is now more of a fighting game convention than it is a tournament, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. For some of the whipping I’m about to give it, I certainly don’t fault Evo for having more things to do as a non-tourney-level attendant than any other event. Between the mini arcade machine booth provided by Arcade1Up, the greatly expanded artist alley, and the various areas full of open consoles to try out both the games featured at Evo and demos of newer games like Granblue Fantasy Versus, there’s plenty of intrigue for someone who enters the tournaments just for fun but may find themselves with little to do afterwards. Letting in all these other groups has its benefits, and I’m glad to see expansion in that sense.
But does all of that get in the way of the primary focus? To me, it has certainly done so in the past, although this year I’m glad to say that I was…mostly happy. Perhaps a good deal of my contentment with the event has to due with the always fun of experiencing the event with folks who have never attended. This year, I traveled to the event with my friend Robert, himself a bit of a FGC newbie, and his cousin, Jake, who was going to not only his first Evo, but his first tournament, period. Their wonder at all the marvels that Evo beheld grew my shriveled heart at least a few sizes.
There’s also no other tournament really like Evo. If you don’t see friends in the FGC all year, there’s a pretty solid chance it’s because they only come out to Evo, where there’s usually so many players you can sneak in and do well and have the Vegas experience on top of it. Even being an audience member and seeing so much talent, including people like Arslan Ash, a Pakistani player who won Tekken this year despite having Visa issues prohibiting him from entering most foreign tournaments, is just an absolute treat. You won’t see higher level play much anywhere else, and the tournaments being so large mean anything could happen in the lower brackets, which is typically most of the fun of being at a big FGC event. Hell even I overperformed and got 128th in both the games I entered, and while that isn’t by any means impressive, it’s better than I ever did at an Evo before, and that’s pretty rad!
Of course, even the most heartwarming of experiences couldn’t stop the jaded competitor in me, for whom the mystical effect of Evo has largely worn off, from finding more than a few faults. Once again, Evo is the biggest open tournament of the year with more time and effort going into it than most others, yet continues to run into logistical errors I don’t experience at other tournaments that hamper the experience for me. Not only that, the results of the Samurai Shodown tournament were a massive bummer, an outcome that was only possible as a result of the direct failure of the Evo powers-that-be to show any tact in dealing with an admittedly complex situation.
In 2016, when I attended primarily to compete in the newly released Street Fighter V, I noticed that the judge for my pool, sweet gal that she was, had almost no idea what she was doing. It was the first time she had run a bracket, and between waiting huge amounts of time to disqualify late players and alternating between using players’ gamertags and their real names, the pool took probably almost an hour longer than it needed to. When I eventually found out that Evo, even then, still used unpaid volunteers to do one of the hardest jobs of the event, it began to make a little more sense as to why you would always hear complaints about the way the pools were being run.
That changed a little this year with the announcement that Evo judges were being paid. Twenty bucks per bracket isn’t a staggering haul, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction, which deserves to be acknowledged. That said, despite some improvements to quality of life for the people doing this very difficult job, I can’t say that the judging experience was all that much better, which I think comes down to a lack of experience and training.
When I was playing my first Mortal Kombat 11 pool, the judge was very excited and enthusiastic, which was nice, but she also had the tiniest voice imaginable. I was standing right at the station where I needed to be, and I could still barely hear her. You obviously can’t make every judge have a booming voice, but she went over a few times to another nearby station to get the guy judging there to say it in his louder voice, which seemed like a poor idea since she couldn’t keep an eye on the matches themselves. It was far from the worst judging experience I had, but also a weird flaw that I feel could have been solved with even halfway decent training.
My Samurai Shodown pools fared no better. My first pool’s judge was really funny and excitable as well, but he was clearly using his own methods for DQ’ing players, which I felt was a really bad idea. At one point, he called for a player’s name, then offered me a coin to flip, making his decision on DQ’ing a random game of chance that was weirdly in my hands. Similarly, my 2nd round of Samurai Shodown featured a judge who watched blankly as a player’s controller malfunctioned multiple times in a match, pausing the game, yet got no call for a game loss, which is the accepted consequence if you pause the game for any reason. The next day a similar incident happened with my second round of Mortal Kombat pools, with the players going so far as to turn of the monitor and reset the console, taking as long as fifteen-twenty minutes to resolve an error the judge should have called off quickly to speed things along.
And my story is certainly not the only example from the weekend. I heard from my fellow AZ players that one of our own was playing in pools, and in an intense set tied at 1-1, the AZ player had his controller disconnect, causing a pause. His opponent was looking to take the game, as is tradition, but another AZ player did some quick talking and was able to convince the judge that the disconnect was worth only a round lost, and not the whole game. The other player proceeded to lose the next two rounds and stormed off in a huff. While this was funny to me and a victory for my local guys, I also find it pretty goofy that a judge is just being willfully led into biased decisions from players in the pool.
I don’t really have a solution for this, admittedly. Obviously I believe that no one should be judging a pool at an event the size of Evo if they have never done it before, as the stress level will be at an all-time high. At the same time, Evo’s size dictates a large staff, and doing a quality-check on every possible judge would be an exercise so obnoxious as to be useless. There is a judge training the night before the tournament starts, and perhaps that needs to be extended or re-tooled in order to cover the full gamut of experiences that can happen. Evo could also introduce a survey, like most businesses, that would ask those who registered to play send in an anonymous survey that asks, specifically, how the judging of their pools went. The feedback isn’t exactly quiet all weekend, but I’ll give Evo the benefit of the doubt that it’s a lot of noise and not very direct. Or some sort of internal communication for judges and senior staff – walkie-talkies, private discord, anything, really.
Like a lot of things at Evo this year, the judging was an example of both taking big progressive steps forward and a big step back. In this case, paying the judges in more than just meal tickets and jackets was good, but the relative lack of training and communication seems like a step backwards. The blame can’t fully be placed on Evo, of course, and some of the individuals probably should be taken to task for their judging errors, but I can’t help but feel that most people, even the most novice among them, would default to the basic rules had they been taught them in the first place.
If the judging was the only logistical error I’d say it was business-as-usual, but not this year, unfortunately. Lines at a tournament, particularly on the opening day, are not at all uncommon; when any big place is first filling up, protocol has to be observed with regards to who is allowed entry, which I totally understand. The usual schtick is that for the first hour or so, tournaments have big lines for people who are picking up their lanyards/badges for the first time and because security is being extra strict about who can and can’t enter. Lately some tournaments have been engaging with more stringent security measures, which, in this day and age in America, I totally get.
But this was absurd.
The line was, almost an hour and a half after the event was open to the public, wrapped completely around the pretty large food court of Mandalay’s convention center. I got in line, staring at people right across from me who were lined up on the opposite side, having been in line even earlier than I. We had gone past the time that first pools were starting, and I wondered how on Earth anyone was supposed to comprehend what was going on. There wasn’t any sense of order, no staff watching the lines, and it was only by the graces of a tweet sent by good samaritans that people found out that folks in 10 A.M. pools were not being DQ’d and were urged to move ahead of the line to a separate line, so long as they could prove their pool was happening.
As of now, I don’t know if anyone but a select few know what exactly was causing the delays. My only clue was when I took refuge in the food court seating area to assess the situation and heard someone wearing a Mortal Kombat 11 shirt grumbling on her phone that this was “the worst event [she]’d ever been a part of,” and that the people in charge “had no idea what they were doing, had no idea how to get people in the building.” It’s not much of a lead, but if I had to wager a guess, my guess is the bag checks were the cause of the delay.
I’ve written before about how I was a little worried that security theater was going to start running rampant at FGC events, and until this tournament I was happy to say that I had been wrong. Evo this year had, in addition to security checking badges at the door, a few sets of metal detectors just inside the convention center for “bag checks.” I only put that in quotes because, as I described in my previous article, it was all a big show. I had a backpack with a bunch of different pockets, none of which had to be opened, and the machine went off because of the metal on my badge, not due to any serious offense. People’s bags weren’t actually being checked so much as glanced at, and at no point did I believe that the bag checks did anything but get the security at the convention center to toss out outside food. Hell, a lot of people didn’t even do bag checks!
Once again I can’t necessarily put all the blame on Evo; Mandalay Bay was the sight of a very serious and terrible incident just a few years ago (which have only increased in frequency, even at video game tournaments), and if their security is tighter because of it then I can completely understand. But these types of lines and cosmetic security just made the morning of the first day a big mess. Pools were getting delayed because judges told players they were supposed to allow a large amount of time for DQ’s due to the lines, and people just didn’t want to leave the venue to eat some decent food for fear of getting caught in the line again. It wasn’t a “temporary annoyance,” this thing held up pools the whole day!
Going back to what I said near the start of this, Evo is more like a convention than a traditional fighting game tournament, which is cool! I have no problem with that, it’s just the evolution (heh!) of things. But I’ve been to many cons in the past, and I’ve never had to wait in a line that brutal just to get in the building. If Evo is going to be more like a convention, it can’t have these basic fundamental issues, but this has been a problem for many years running. Whether it was running tournaments past midnight one night in preparation for finals at 8 A.M. the next morning in 2016, or a strange lack of any drinking fountains or affordable water in 2017, to now this issue of security theater, in addition to things like stations having bad power leading to console slowdown or other performance issues and poor judging, one can’t help but think that Evo is more interested in being “big” instead of fixing these consistent and annoying logistical issues, which seem to always come up every year no matter how harsh the criticism the year before.
And speaking of being above criticism, I’ve saved the worst for last. I’ve written enough on the subject now to be a damn scholar on the subject, but to make a very long story short, Evo weekend saw the return of Seon-woo “Infiltration” Lee to active competition after roughly 10 months of a self-imposed exile after it was revealed that he had a legitimate domestic violence charge in South Korea during the fallout of his marriage. As you can see in the links above, Lee has been anything but apologetic or remorseful of his actions, and has instead been litigious and threatening, demanding apologies from players in South Korea who have spoken ill of him regarding this manner.
I was more than a little perturbed that he quite literally announced on Twitter that he would be back, and that Joey “Mr. Wizard” Cuellar, President of the Evo brand, was seemingly salivating over the idea of him coming back to play. The guy had been actively banned from competing in any Street Fighter V event that was part of the Capcom Pro Tour for serious reasons, but weirdly that just meant he couldn’t enter Street Fighter. I thought it was in poor taste to let a guy who was barred from competition for a good reason a shot at loopholing his way back in, especially given his behavior in the aftermath of the incident. But the worst was yet to come.
Acting like an ass doesn’t preclude one from being a good fighting game player, and sadly, Lee ended up winning the Samurai Shodown tournament at Evolution. At that point I was willing to just accept that sometimes the bad guy wins, but Evo just had to surprise me one last time:
His “triumphant return?” Notice how there is no mention of what the “return” was from? I was worried from the very start of this sad story that, at some point, the FGC was going to be complicit in this man’s redemption, and it has come to fruition. I couldn’t think of a more winning endorsement than that, and to see it come from the biggest tournament our scene has to offer is just stunningly gross. The worst part seems to be that they know this, too – when they were handing out the top 8 medals for Samurai Shodown, the camera was kept well away from Lee so his face wouldn’t be shown on the big screen. On Sunday, when they showed a montage of all the tournament winners, they did a very good job of making sure Samurai Shodown couldn’t be seen. In certain circumstances, Evo appears to understand that they probably shouldn’t be enabling this person’s road to success, but they mostly don’t seem to…care. Which, especially coming from this weekend, just hurt to think about.
One of the joys of my Evo trip was being able to sit in on a panel exclusively dedicated to women in the FGC and their experiences. Women like Ricki Ortiz, Samantha “Persia” Hancock, Caitlin Thiher, etc. were able to talk about some of the problems they faced personally and give some general advice for women to best navigate being in the FGC. It was a great panel, and it was well attended, which gave me a lot of hope that perhaps the message would stick. Tom and Tony Cannon, the brothers who helped start Evo along with Mr. Wizard, were sitting right near the front row, which was a small sign that perhaps the people in power were listening and would learn from the panel as well.
I was wrong.
In just the week since this panel, multiple reports of women of the FGC being harassed at the official afterparty held by Red Bull post-Evo came out, and old FGC head-turned-eSports-photographer Chris Bahn was outed to have been sexually harassing/assaulting FGC women. Throwing your considerable weight behind a guy who is totally unrepentant about his own past of injuring a woman in an argument couldn’t have been a worse look for Evo, and the fact that they tried to scrub his face after the fact is cowardice of the highest possible order.
This is another situation I don’t know the answer to, but I think I’m being reasonable in saying that if someone is literally banned from entering a tournament series due to misconduct, that’s probably a good reason to not let him enter any tournaments until that ban is up. FGC events, as big as they are getting, are private, and no one is entitled to attend or have their brand spread by the massive reach that Evo has with that kind of stain on their record. He also should have only been on stream when necessary, but even in pools the stream runners couldn’t help themselves:
Given that no one really seemed to care before Evo, I doubt they will now, but that was one of the worst parts of the weekend for sure. I’ve literally never seen a person win a tournament and get resoundingly booed by an audience earnestly, and maybe that should reflect on the actions taken here. A fiasco all around.
When Evo started as the B3 tournament almost twenty years ago, I don’t think anyone had an idea of where it would end up. A fighting game tournament at a massive stadium usually meant for boxing events or mixed martial arts? It sounds crazy on paper, but it’s reality now. I imagine that sometimes the feeling of “how did we get here?” seems overwhelming, and I don’t envy the staff of this tournament having to service an almost impossibly large amount of fighting game players.
Even then, I don’t think it’s wise to hold my tongue when it comes to the flaws I see, even if it’s not going to be heard. I appreciate everything that goes into making this massive thing happen, and there are a ton of staff behind-the-scenes that will never get fully appreciated for the things they do. Hell if I had one big compliment, it’s for whoever helps direct the event at the Mandalay Arena, which was far livelier during breaks and included fun games for the audience like playing classic matches of Tekken 7 on the screen, pausing during the dramatic final strikes, which slow-down in game as well, and having everyone guess on which player took the round.
But these constant issues make the event not as grand as it wants to appear to be. There are a number of tournaments that don’t suffer from nearly as much logistical issues, and there are certainly other tournaments that give a shit about what they put their brand on and when it’s wise to stay quiet. Although judging from this video, I don’t think Mr. Wizard is really interested in the customer experience. That’s how it always is with Evo, an eternal Monkey’s Paw: not enough chairs in the convention center? Move to a bigger, more expensive hotel with a much bigger space but still not enough chairs. No free water in the convention center? We’ll put in one set of drinking fountains which will have long lines and have heavily increased security so leaving to get water is a pain in the ass. Want women to have a bigger spotlight in the show? We’ll give them a panel but also broadcast and celebrate a domestic abuser through our tournament.
I love most of the people in the FGC, and that’s why I always end up having a good time at events because of the relationships I’ve built up over the years. But after experiencing Combo Breaker back in April, I start to wonder why Evo lags behind, even while acknowledging that there are a ton more issues running a tournament in a Vegas hotel with a much bigger guestlist. And it’s not like their staff list isn’t a who’s who of top level people dedicated to the FGC who can run this thing right! I just don’t understand.
If it sounds like I absolutely hated the tournament, that’s not really true. As I said, any tournament where I get to hang with friends, meet new people and explore everything this weird and wacky community has to offer is a good time for me. But it’s not perfect, and if I’m not honest about the issues I ran into and felt over the weekend, I don’t see how they can improve. I still don’t have a lot of hope that they will even after the fact, as it usually comes with caveats, but I’m willing to make another wish on the Monkey’s Paw if it means I don’t have to flip a coin to decide the fate of a player DQ again.